A whirling dancer on the street.
Book Chapter
Peer Review
Silencing the Streets: Classism, Fear of the Crowd, and Regulating Sounds and Bodies
The denial of lower, coarse, vulgar, venal, servile—in a word, natural—enjoyment, which constitutes the sacred sphere of culture, implies an
Pedestrians and cars move throughout a busy street scene in Egypt.
Book Title
Street Sounds: Listening to Everyday Life in Modern Egypt
Book Author(s)
Ziad Fahmy
Medium of Publication
Number of Pages


The denial of lower, coarse, vulgar, venal, servile—in a word, natural—enjoyment, which constitutes the sacred sphere of culture, implies an affirmation of the superiority of those who can be satisfied with the sublimated, refined, disinterested, gratuitous, distinguished pleasures forever closed to the profane. That is why art and cultural consumption are predisposed, consciously and deliberately or not, to fulfill a social function of legitimating social differences.

Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction [1]

Pierre Bourdieu’s analysis of cultural taste and class formation can shed some light on some of the cultural and social dynamics taking place in the Egyptian streets in the first half of the twentieth century. This becomes much more apparent when examining the Egyptian streets using a more sensory approach. A sensory classification of sorts, ranking Egyptian society along a deliberate yet subjective scale of vulgarity, is readily apparent in many of Egypt’s twentieth century cultural productions. [2] These classist discourses were a dominant theme in the Egyptian press and, as I examine in the rest of the chapter, were mostly a byproduct of a small yet growing upwardly mobile educated Egyptian middle class. [3] Insecure perhaps in their newly acquired and still forming class position and armed with an almost messianic civilizing mission to uplift the Egyptian masses to some subjective and idealized level of “modernity,” these writers and intellectuals vulgarized, infantilized, and sometimes dehumanized the vast majority of the Egyptian population. Much of this apparent disdain for the poor and those who were deemed as uncultured was expressed in an explicitly sensory idiom that classified the masses as loud, dirty, tasteless, smelly, overtly sexualized, superstitious, and a danger to public health and public order. An important function of these categorizations, as Bourdieu demonstrates, was to classify the classifiers, by “distinguishing themselves by the distinctions they make.”[4] But as I will elaborate in this chapter, this was not merely just a matter of aesthetics, cultural taste, or re-enforcement of class distinction, but at times it was a reflection of a deep-seated suspicion of the masses and a growing anxiety about the potential of street disorders.

These discourses had a direct and mostly detrimental impact on Egypt’s poor and were translated into some oppressive policies by the state, leading to a recurring cycle of silencing and stifling all those who are dependent on the streets for survival. Indeed, the price of these often futile attempts at creating what Bourdieu describes as a “more polished, more polite, [and] better policed world,” was and still is being paid in full by those who are most vulnerable. [5] Egypt’s itinerant poor, from street hawkers, entertainers and fortunetellers to beggars and the homeless, were at the frontline of these ideological and physical policing battles over control of the streets.

This chapter will, in part, document many of these often unsuccessful yet violent and disruptive attempts by the state to silence, “order,” and control the streets. But more importantly, the varying ways which ordinary men and women accommodated, resisted, or coopted the state’s increasing intrusions into their everyday lives will be a repeating feature of not only this chapter but also, to a large extent, for the remainder of the book. As I have begun to discuss in the introduction, the panoptic powers of the modern state were never as neat, efficient, and controlling as they are sometimes portrayed. Everyday people daily used and “misused” the streets, for their own purposes, to loudly sell, buy, mourn, and celebrate, often breaking a host of state regulations in the process. Police enforcement, if it ever took place, was loud, messy, and contentious. If the enforcement was “successful,” it was almost always resisted, negotiated, and at best partially or incompletely imposed.  As I demonstrate in this chapter, by listening in to the sources, we can somewhat escape this totalizing, all-seeing paradigm, and, more importantly for our purposes, we can attempt to uncover some of the lived experience of ordinary people and begin to reveal the changing sights and sounds of Egyptian street-life.


Muhammad ‘Umar and the Middle Class’ Inferiority Complex

Muhammad ‘Umar’s The Present State of Egyptians or the State of their Retrogression is perhaps the most representative of the classist attitudes prevalent among Egypt’s educated elite during the first half of the twentieth century. ‘Umar, who was a middle class government bureaucrat working at the Egyptian Post Office, received quite a bit of notoriety when he first published his book in 1902. [6] Umar acknowledged in his introduction that his book was inspired after reading an Arabic translation of Edmond Demolins’ (1852-1907), A quoi tient la supériorité des Anglo-Saxons (Anglo-Saxon Superiority: To What it is Due). [7] The translator of Demolins’ book was none-other than Saad Zaghlul’s elder brother, the anti-populist Ahmad Fathi Zaghlul (1862-1914), who less than a decade later would become infamous for his role as one of the Egyptian judges in the Dinshaway trial. [8] Zaghlul’s introduction to his Arabic translation of A quoi tient la supériorité des Anglo-Saxons, applied some of Demolins’s analysis to Egypt, casting the Egyptian masses as hopelessly ignorant and requiring a major civilizing uplift. [9] This no doubt provided the fertile seed to ‘Umar’s book, and not surprisingly, Ahmad Fathi Zaghlul also wrote the preface of ‘Umar’s book. [10]

Umar’s classist, anti-populist approach in The Present State of Egyptians can only be described as an intolerant tirade against the Egyptian poor, which he admits was essentially the vast majority of the Egyptian population. After a biting critique and an exaggerated stereotyping of Egypt’s traditional wealthy elites, he somewhat sings the praises and elaborates on the civilizing potential of the small yet growing, upwardly mobile middle classes; which he of course counts himself as a true representative. In the last third of his book, ‘Umar lambasts the Egyptian poor, as thieving, ignorant, and backward with almost no redeeming qualities. [11] ‘Umar, as I will soon examine, has a lot to say about street hawkers and the itinerant poor. 

Though Umar was extreme in his views regarding the poor, he represented a wider classist “civilizing” attitude shared by many Egyptian public intellectuals throughout the twentieth century.  In Zachary Lockman’s detailed analysis of ‘Umar’s book, he correctly places him squarely in the “reformist” Muhammad ‘Abduh camp, “operating more or less within the same discursive field as such contemporaries as Ahmad Fathi Zaghlul, Yusuf al-Nahhas, Qasim Amin, and Ahmad Lutfi al-Sayyid.” [12] Some of these classist attitudes with regards to the uplifting of the ignorant and unwashed Egyptian masses would be represented in the Umma Party’s platform, and Lutfi al-Sayyid’s al-Jarida newspaper when they were both created in 1907.

Many of these reformist “concerns” were (and still are) especially directed toward the physical public presence of the itinerant poor in the streets, squares, and alleyways of Egypt’s towns and cities. Discourses emanating from the Egyptian and colonial press were at best condescending and at worst vulgarizing of all those who live or make a living in the streets. This fear of the hubbub of the “lower” classes characterized not just the discourses of the upper classes and the cultural elites but was also reflected in the writings of the journalists, editors and intellectuals who filled the press with a steady stream of articles, opinions pieces and exposés about the urban poor and all those who live on the margins. Indeed, for many of Egypt’s growing middle classes, the urban poor became a sort of national shame that needed immediate civilizing and uplifting, reminding the middle classes of how far behind the country was from their utopian modernizing vision. Pickpocketing, petty crime, begging, prostitution, disorderly conduct, and various other street swindles regularly filled many daily and weekly periodicals. The Akhbar al-Hawadith (accidents & crime pages) section of various newspapers and regular letters to the editor, recorded often exaggerated reports for the various threats emanating from the streets and street peoples. As is often the case, these alarmist representations of the masses almost always utilized demeaning sensory vulgarization. These reports typically portrayed Egyptian masses as loud, boisterous, smelly, tasteless and uncouth. Quieting or at least muffling the sounds of the masses was always presented as the first step in civilizing these future citizens. [13]


The “Latent Deviance and Immorality” of Male and Female Street Hawkers

Writing at the turn of the twentieth century, Muhammad ‘Umar was characteristically judgmental of street hawkers in general and was not just critical of their commercial activities in the streets but also always suspicious of their “social” interactions with customers and passersby. Like many other contemporaries, he seemed to be always fearful of what he describes as the chaos of the streets, and the lower classes were almost always the instruments of that chaos. [14] After a long Soliloquy decrying the laziness and ignorance of the poor, ‘Umar begins to describe some of the “unproductive work” they engage in, including peddling and street hawking. Street hawkers, according to ‘Umar are all thieves and swindlers at heart, who either misrepresent what they sell or manipulate their scales by “cheating with the weight and measure of what they sell.” He emphatically declares that “both men and women are guilty of this offense.” [15] He seems to especially detest female street hawkers, fearful of what he saw as their latent sexuality and practically accuses all of them of borderline prostitution:

As for the girls that start out as sellers of oranges or dates we can say that they start out selling these things while maintaining some respect and covering their faces when approached by men because of respectability and shyness. After a bit of time passes, these girls then abandon the hijab entirely and walk joyfully without it. They later learn the latest jokes and jests (hizar), and when a passer-by, donkey boy, or a carriage driver passes by, these women flirt and joke with them, and they even dare to do this with some policemen. I recall one day as I was standing near one of these women, a policeman approached her as she was sitting on the ground [immodestly] with her legs wide open. They were both laughing out loud as they loudly shared jokes and conversed familiarly with each other. When it was time for him [the policeman] to leave, he took some of what she was selling and made sure to put in a good word for her to the next policeman taking over his shift. This is the sort of thing that typically happens with the rest of these female street sellers. [16] 

What was most likely just friendly banter, was viewed by the conservatively repressed ‘Umar as public sexual flirtation, enhancing in his mind the potential moral and sexual chaos that a poor woman working in the public streets represents.  There is another issue, however, that was implied from ‘Umar’s account. As he left at the end of his shift, the police officer took some of the oranges from the woman without paying for them. If this was the case, then the street vender was most likely guaranteeing protection from the officer, by allowing her to continue to sell her oranges in this location. According to ‘Umar’s account, this interpretation was corroborated by the fact that he overheard the officer “putting in a good word” for the orange seller with the next officer on shift at the same location. Regardless of the exact veracity of this account, it is certainly plausible, since there were, on paper at least, a few laws either regulating or in some locations forbidding street hawking altogether. In any case, the relationships of the police and street hawkers were not always as “accommodating” as the case described by ‘Umar. As the rest of the chapter will show, there were certainly many documented cases of police abuse and mistreatment of street merchants and the itinerant poor. [17]


Regulating and Quieting Street Hawkers

In a curious and rather unrealistic attempt at profit making, an enterprising businessman named M. G. Eram saw the untapped moneymaking potential of taxing the thousands of street-hawkers in Cairo and Alexandria. On January 12, 1889, Eram petitioned the Egyptian government to license him and give him a personal concession to become the sole tax collecting agent responsible for tracking down and soliciting taxes from Cairo’s and Alexandria’s street merchants. In making his case to the Egyptian government Mr. Eram claimed that 80 percent of all street merchants were outside of the jurisdiction of the municipal authorities and were “not known to the leaders of the city quarters (mashayikh al-harat) and the heads of the guilds (mashayikh al-hiraf).” To tempt government officials to agree to his scheme, he reminds them of the potential tax revenues that could be gained if the street hawkers are registered and taxed. Eram then proposes to acquire a monopoly for collecting taxes directly from the street merchants of Cairo and Alexandria for a period of two years and in return he would pay the state 5,000 Egyptian pounds (LE) per year. [18] This concession, which sounds more like an organized crime racket than a legitimate business venture, was of course never implemented, and it is almost certain that it would have failed, had the Egyptian authorities allowed Eram to execute it. Without an enforcement mechanism to implement the taxes on the street hawkers, it would have been impossible for Eram to recoup his investment.

However, Eram correctly assessed the existence of thousands of mostly unregulated street hawkers in turn of twentieth-century Egyptian towns and cities. The lack of a regular fixed address and the ability to move virtually anywhere provided for a great deal of flexibility and the potential for many to evade taxation and regulation. Despite newer, more advanced surveillance techniques employed by an increasingly centralized Egyptian (and colonial) state, most street merchants could still contest, resist, and at times ignore the State’s attempts to control their trade and their bodies. Overall, enforcement of these laws was limited and inconsistent, although it could quickly turn to capricious and arbitrary at times of political turmoil.

Ideally, of course, the state wanted to consistently control the streets and especially hawkers and merchants, though the attempts were almost always an exercise in futility. Some level of control could be achieved if the state had the will and the resources, and if hawkers had regular routes through the city, but we can safely assume that the majority of street venders and hawkers whether in the nineteenth century or today were well able to evade regular control by the state. However, because the hawkers’ marginalized political and economic status often left them on the margins of society, individual police authorities irregularly and arbitrarily harassed and abused them for bribes and kickbacks. The Egyptian archives are full of petitions by street hawkers complaining of constant police abuse, corruption, and harassment.

In the twentieth century, laws and regulations monitoring and dictating the behavior of street hawkers began on January 31, 1915 with a directive from the minister of interior. According to the letter of this law each hawker needed to acquire a license that had to be renewed on an annual basis. The number of this license was supposed to be on display. Aside from paying the fees, each hawker had to be cleared medically and had to have no criminal record. Since all street vendors loudly advertised their wares, their hours of operation were limited by law. It is of course doubtful that these regulations were fully enforced. In fact, in 1941 a much more robust law was passed and at least partly implemented. An explanatory memo included in the 1941 government file explicitly stated that the 1915 law was ineffective and insufficient. [19]

The 1941 law was based on the recommendations of Egyptian Prime Minister and the Ministry of Public Health and was presented to the Egyptian parliament by the office of King Faruq at the end of July 1941. This was in affect an updated revision of prior legislation regulating street hawkers, by essentially expanding upon and amending the 1915 law. The amended 1941 law consisted of 13 articles dictating almost every aspect of the lives of street vendors. [20] The law defines a street hawker fairly broadly as anyone who sells goods while moving around in the public streets, whether by carrying the products on their person or by using a cart or any other vehicle. According to article two of the law, a street hawker must acquire a yearly license from the nearest governorate or district. The license was in the form of a sequentially numbered passport-like booklet costing 30 millimes per year. [21] For an additional 50 millimes, the hawkers received a metal license plate engraved with the number and the name of the issuing governorate or directorate. The metal plate was supposed to be displayed on the street hawker’s left arm at all times, and the paper license was to be shown to the police or to the health authorities upon request. In order to receive their license, a street hawker had to be at least 12 years old, demonstrate that they had not committed a crime in the last 2 years, and document that they were free from any skin or intestinal disease. The government reserved the right to revoke the license, if the licensee committed a crime or became ill with a skin or intestinal disorder. A person whose license was revoked because of an illness had to acquire a medical certificate endorsed by the proper health authorities, indicating a clean bill of health. Under the letter of the law, anyone who was arrested for selling anything in the streets without a license or if they break any of the health laws or the rulings passed by the Public Health Ministry, could be jailed for up to one week and fined up to 100 piasters. As we shall soon see though, this was very irregularly enforced.


Siestas and Silencing Street Cries
Street hawker regulations not only dictated where and when these venders could sell their wares but also attempted to control their hygiene, the smells and expirations of their food, and the volume of their verbal/vocal calls. Article 9, section 3 of the 1941 law, for example, explicitly forbade street hawkers from “pursuing the public or advertising their wares by yelling, ringing bells, blowing horns or any other similar instruments, in a fashion that disturbs public peace and tranquility.”  The regulations even attempt to dictate what time during the day hawkers could make their sale rounds. For example, on paper at least, during the winter months, street hawkers were not allowed to make their calls between the hours of 8 p.m. and 7 a.m. During the summer, they were forbidden to sell their wares from 10:00 pm to 6:00 am. Interestingly, from April 15 to October 14, they were also forbidden to sell anything during siesta time from 2:00 pm to 4:00 pm, as to not disturb those who were napping in the hot summer afternoons. Article 9, which explicitly lays out things that street hawkers are forbidden to do has six sections, and it is worth quoting in its entirety:

Article 9.  
 Street Hawkers are forbidden from:
Section 1. Selling their goods or walking through and standing in any streets or Square forbidden to Street Hawkers as directed by any written decree by a Governor or Director (Mudir).
Section 2. Standing close to, or selling their goods near any store which sells similar items. Street Hawkers are also forbidden from standing or selling their goods in any place forbidden by the police in order to facilitate traffic, or maintaining order and security.
Section 3. Pursuing the public or advertising their wares by yelling, ringing bells, blowing horns or any other similar instruments, in a fashion that disturbs the tranquility of the public.
Section 4. Selling food or drink that is spoiled or banned by the Department of Public Health.
Section 5. Selling of explosives, weapons or fireworks.
Section 6. Pursuing their trade between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. From April 15th to October 14, and between the hours of 8 p.m. and 7 a.m. During the period of October 15 to April 14th.  They are entirely forbidden from advertising their Wares by calling out or by any other means from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. in the period of April 15th to October 14th. [22]

There was a great deal of ambiguity in these laws, and they were certainly open to interpretation and misinterpretation, which, as we shall soon examine, caused much hardship for many who relied on the street for their livelihood. Article 10 in particular gave a great deal of power to the Governors and the mudiriyya Directors. They had the right to deny licenses for a particular area or to limit the number of licenses issued. They also apparently had the power to exempt certain types of street hawkers from this law, with the exception of hawkers that sell food and drink, which still had to acquire a permit from the Public Health Ministry. Petitions to the Egyptian government by street hawkers and some of their advocates seem to indicate that licenses were limited in number and also very difficult to obtain, if they were available at all. If a street vending license was available, there were still quite few bureaucratic hurdles that had to be passed before it was acquired, not the least of which was following through with all of the procedures and regulations put into place by the Minister of Public Health. This, at best, caused confusion and at worst opened the door to corrupt practices and bribery of the police and other government officials.


Resisting and Petitioning the State

The vast majority of street hawkers were unregulated and unlicensed, and though extensive laws and regulations were on the books, they were unevenly enforced. Also, just as today, police abuse of street merchants was common. [23] As dozens of petitions to the Egyptian King and the Egyptian government in the 1930s and 1940s attest, arrests, police beatings, and the embezzlement of money from unlicensed merchants regularly took place (see Figure 2.1). The most common reason for the arrest of street hawkers was obstructing traffic. The arresting police officers would invoke the second section of Article 9, which states that “street hawkers are prohibited from standing or selling their goods in any place forbid-den by the police in order to facilitate traffic, or maintaining order and security.” This was by far the most commonly abused clause in the law as it was wide open to interpretation, and it allowed the police to arrest street hawkers on any whim.

In an October 16, 1944, petition to King Faruq, Abd al-Maqsud Khalaf Hasan, the self-proclaimed president of the Public Union of Knick-Knack Ped-dlers (al-Niqaba al-‘Amah li-Ba’i‘i al-Khardawat) wrote:

Your Majesty,
We are petitioning you because of the mistreatment we suffer at the hands of the police, for they are constantly harassing and chasing after us in the streets and alleyways as if we are criminals running from justice. The truth is that we are merely trying to make an honest living. . . . Lately, the police have especially been hound-ing us and upon arresting a poor merchant, they simply accuse him of being a “street hawker.” At the police station, the prosecutor typically writes up the case against the vendor and sets a court date, and a bail of one Egyptian pound.

If the vendor cannot afford to pay the bail they are imprisoned for up to eleven days [or until the court date]. How is a street merchant supposed to feed his family of 3, 4, or 5 individuals if he is in prison? And how is he supposed to pay that one pound, which is nearly his entire capital? One pound is almost the cost of the goods that he is carrying on his person. If he does pay that one pound, then most likely he will resort to becoming a criminal or swindler in order to feed his children. So, in short, an otherwise obedient law-abiding merchant is transformed into a criminal and a potential danger to law and order. [24]

Confrontation between Police and Street Merchants in Port Said (1900).

FIGURE 2.1. Confrontation between Police and Street Merchants in Port Said (1900). Source: The author’s personal collection of photographs (E. W. Kelley Publisher, Stereo View Image, 1900).


After declaring that street hawkers “do not have any rights,” Hassan stresses yet again that street vending is the only line of “honest work” that is open to the hawk-ers, and as such it is their only means of support (see Figure 2.2). Street hawkers, Hassan elaborates, have to work out in the elements, enduring “the coldest of winter nights and the hottest of summer days.” He then continues to seek sympathy for his cause, by describing the typical poverty experienced by most street hawkers, high-lighting that despite enduring daily toil and backbreaking work, they can barely make ends meet. Stressing the dire economic situation during the Second World War, Hassan specifically discusses inflation and the dramatic increases in the prices of everyday staples. He then adds that all these hardships have been compounded by the police, who lately have been unfairly chasing after and arresting peddlers in the streets. Responding to the allegation of obstructing traffic, which was argu-ably the most common charge leveled by the police against street hawkers, Hassan declares: “Most of the products we sell are light western made goods amounting to a total of 2–3 kilograms at the most. Eastern knick-knacks, sunglasses, pens, and other writing implements, which are all very small and light; we certainly do not cause any traffic obstructions as is often claimed by the police.” After making his case, Hassan then proceeds to lay out his four basic requests from the government:

These are our basic demands:
First: A generous order from your highness to all the necessary authorities in order to halt the present policy of chasing after and arresting street hawkers.
Second: Introduce laws concerning street hawkers that are compatible with our current modern age.
Third: Facilitating for us the attainment of street hawker licenses (in the same style as those available to newspaper sellers). This is with the understanding that we are willing to pay for the necessary fees and obey all regulations. This we will do in order to protect ourselves from the police.
Fourth: In order to protect public order from all evildoers and criminals, this union has decided to voluntarily submit all of its members to all the necessary background checks. [25]

Hassan and the other petition signers appear to be fully aware of the state’s public security anxieties, and the petition cleverly allays the authorities’ concerns about street disorders and criminal elements by volunteering to submit background checks for all union members. And interestingly, Hassan reverses the civiliza-tional discourse emanating from the Egyptian press with regard to street vendors and the urban poor by attempting to shame the police and the state into enacting enforcement policies that are “compatible with our current modern age.”

Simit bread seller with two children.

FIGURE 2.2. Simit Bread Seller (ca. 1955).
Source: Eugene Harris Collection, American Geographical Society Library, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries.


Not surprisingly, none of these petitioned demands were met. Three years later, a dozen Cairene street merchants appointed a man named Selim Nicola, a resident of the Muski District of Cairo, to petition the King on their behalf. His petition, dated March 27, 1947, complained of the exact same police abuses and arbitrary arrests. As Hassan did in the previous petition, Nicola claims that “policemen were unfairly arresting, beating, fining, and detaining” street vendors. Nicola also sug-gests that the government license the street hawkers in order to legitimate their trade and prevent police abuse. [26] These two petitions, and others like them, suggest that the elaborate 1915 and 1941 laws concerning street hawkers were only partly enforced. So even though according to state regulations at the time, street merchants were supposed to have licenses, few of those licenses were given out, or they were very difficult to come by. In any case, these uneven efforts by the centralized authori-ties and the police to restrict the public movement and presence of street hawkers also extended to the poor, street children, and the homeless.

Policing the Streets and Silencing the Poor

Since I became the Mayor of Cairo I received many complaints from the citizens of the capital who come from a variety of different nationalities. In these complaints they bemoan the social condition of the city and the biggest criticism was about the increase in homelessness which ruins the beauty and reputation of the city and greatly upsets the public. I paid special attention to this issue.

‘Abd al-Salam al-Shadhli Pasha, Cairo Mayor,
“His Highness the King Orders the Rescue of Homeless Kids—600 Homeless Boys Are Sent to an Agricultural Encampment: An interview with the Honorable Mayor of Cairo” (1938) [27]

For most of the twentieth century, not only were the authorities and the Egyp-tian “public” concerned about street hawkers, but more broadly, many Egyp-tians were also apprehensive about the urban poor and especially the homeless. The line between a beggar and a street hawker often blurred. This was also the case for a dizzying variety of street entertainers and for the men, women, and children selling flowers, jasmine, and trinkets. The category of the home-less was quite broad and included beggars, street children, and those who were temporarily unemployed. It also included many who worked in a variety of “street jobs,” from shoeshine boys to fortune-tellers, and who simply did not make enough money to afford regular lodging. Fortune-tellers, usually women, provided “psychic” readings, though there was an implicit charitable compo-nent to the transaction. Female Quran reciters were also a common sight in Egypt’s streets well into the first quarter of the twentieth century. The usually bad-tempered Muhammad ‘Umar had a great deal to say about this:

Many poverty-stricken girls are seen daily by passers-by in the streets of the capital and in other cities, sitting down in the streets reciting the Quran for all to see and hear. They especially sit near al-Sayyida Zaynab and al-Sayyida Nafisa Mosques and the Mitwali and Abu- al-‘Ila bridges. It is no secret that what they do is a grave disgrace for us all, since they read the glorious Quran sitting in the dirt and mud while holding their children who are often screaming and crying, mixing in our ears the recitation with the sounds of weeping babies. It’s as if the babies can feel that this is not lawful, so they cry proclaiming their innocence from this entire affair. Otherwise there is no need to cry for they say that children enjoy a good tune and a pleasant voice. [28]

Yet in this case, the incessantly judgmental ‘Umar found a thread of poten-tial redemption for the Quran reciters, but only if they were “taught and trained to read the Quran properly.” Then, according to ‘Umar, they could “make a proper lawful [halal] living as they correctly recite Quranic verses at funer-als, this way they can be blessed by God as well and not cursed as these street women are.” [29] Public female Quran reciters were commonly heard in the Egyp-tian streets in the early twentieth century, but they seemed to have disappeared by the second half of the twentieth century. [30]

The Egyptian press commonly printed new anti-poor, anti-begging, and anti-homelessness discourses invoking fears of an imminent breakdown of public se-curity, public order, and even public health. Some even described beggars as “foci of infection and called for their removal from public spaces.” As documented by Mine Ener, these discourses began as early as the middle of the nineteenth century, and I would argue, still continue today. [31] The Egyptian press was full of editorials and reports warning of the dangers of the streets and of street people, which had an effect on public opinion, as corroborated by the comments from Cairo’s Mayor in the epigraph for this section. Often these classist articles had alarmist headlines as they talked about pickpockets, beggars, gypsies [ghagar], street children, or the homeless. As the cartoon in Figure 2.3 illustrates, the concern was not merely about the safety of the public but also about the “civi-lizational” appearance of the city streets. Printed on the cover of the December 10, 1934, issue of al-Ithnayn magazine, the cartoon dramatically exemplifies the insensitivities of these classist discourses. The clearly poor, Upper Egyptian peasant family is dehumanized and depicted as resembling the chimpanzees in the Cairo zoo. Leaving no doubt as to the malicious intent of the artist’s repre-sentation, the father speaks to the chimpanzees, asking them, “Why don’t you come out [of the cage]?” One of the chimps responds, “Why don’t you come in here?” [32] Although this was an extreme example of the literal dehumanization of the working poor and peasants in the Egyptian press, it is nonetheless representa-tive of the constant attacks marginalizing Egyptian subalterns. These articles and cartoons were frequently printed during this period. Surveying al-Ahram news-paper in the 1930s and 1940s, I found only a few articles that defended the street poor; most tended to blame them for being lazy or accused them of criminality.

Cartoon depicting Egyptian peasants as chimpanzees.

FIGURE 2.3. Egyptian Peasants Caricatured as Chimpanzees. Source: al-Ithnayn, December 10, 1934.


Starting in the mid-nineteenth century, there was a repeating obsession among the Egyptian and later on British authorities with clearing the streets of those who were considered undesirable. This included beggars, street children, the homeless, gypsies, street entertainers, and, as examined earlier, unregulated street hawkers. Typically, if arrested, able-bodied males begging or living in the streets were fined for their first offense and faced imprisonment as repeat offenders. [33] It is hard to fathom, however, how these men and women could af-ford to pay the fines, and it is likely that most faced imprisonment upon arrest. These laws were at best irregularly implemented, but when they were enforced, they were devastating to these marginal groups who depended on the streets for their very survival.

Vagrancy Laws and Blaming the Victims

While not wishing to dwell too much on the volume of work of the qisms [police stations], I will quote the following figures from one qism, ‘Abdin, to show what a maximum effort is required to obtain a minimum result in checking the daily nuisances of the town. During the year 535 contraventions were made for vagabondage, 448 contraventions were made for beggars, 2,398 contraventions were made for hawkers, and 731 contraventions were made for illegal tram-riding.

Ministry of the Interior Report for the Year 1922 [34]

The rounding up of urban beggars, “vagrants,” and vagabonds by the Egyptian government goes back to at least the reign of Muhammad Ali (r. 1805–1848). Concerns for order and public health were always cited as reasons to remove the itinerant poor. There were also some unevenly enforced anti-begging and homelessness laws in the early 1890s. [35] And begging was outlawed, on paper at least, in the districts of Azbakiyya, ‘Abdin, and Muski. [36] In the twentieth cen-tury, vagrancy laws in Egypt were revised and irregularly enforced in 1909, during an era of political turmoil and street violence culminating in the reap-plication of the censorship press laws of 1881, and the eventual assassination of Prime Minister Boutros Ghali Pasha in 1910. [37] For this reason, and in order to curb any street political activities, the laws were fairly broad and left quite a bit of room for interpretation. The 1909 laws were revised in June of 1923, during the ministry of Yahya Ibrahim, and according to contemporary legal critics, they were made even more complicated and vague, opening up the door for police and judicial abuse. [38]

The revised 1923 law was titled, “The law on vagrants and on those under surveillance and wanted by the police,” and contained thirty-five rambling ar-ticles detailing differing issues including probation, fines, and sentencing.39 The two most relevant to our discussion are Articles 1 and 31. The thirty-first article specifies that the “law does not apply to women or children under 15 years of age.” This is pertinent to the analysis later in the chapter. The first article contains seven sections, and was the most controversial because of its inconsistency and its vagueness. It is worth quoting in its entirety:

Article 1
Who is to be defined as a vagrant under the law?
Section 1. Those with no lawful means of support.
Section 2. Those who make a living through gambling in the streets or those who
read people’s fortune in the streets or in any other public place or in any place where they are exposed to the gaze of the public.
Section 3. Pimps [quwad al-nisa’ al-‘umumiat].
Section 4. Those who are capable of work and yet take to begging in the public
Section 5. Those who were sentenced more than twice for forcing children to beg
in the streets and other public places and who were last sentenced within one year.
Section 6. Gypsies that travel the country without having a permanent home, un-
less they show that they have a profession or lawful employment.
Section 7. Those who regularly spend the night in the public streets and squares of towns or cities and those that do not have a home. [40]

In 1933, a conscientious lawyer named Abdallah Husayn wrote a series of articles for al-Ahram on amending and improving various aspects of Egyptian law. One of these articles was titled “Tanqih Qanun al-Mutasharidun” (Revising the vagrancy law). [41] In this long essay, Husayn scathingly attacks the vagrancy law of 1923 and calls for it to be completely rewritten. He elaborates on both the law’s unfairness and its vagueness, which he claims has led to many false arrests. More importantly to Husayn, the law allows for police abuse and is not equitable when considering people’s circumstances, the poverty that they endure, and the desperation that stems from their hardship and their destitu-tion. The vagueness of the law, according to Husayn, results in a wide range of inconsistent legal verdicts and leaves the door open for abuse. Apparently, politicians and the police, in times of political turmoil, gained a tremendous amount of leverage by misapplying the law to arrest political demonstrators. According to Husayn, there were unsuccessful attempts at “revising the law in 1927 during the ministry of Tharwat Pacha, and the idea was still in circulation in the Interior Ministry.”

To prove how arbitrary some of the cases were, and to demonstrate the ambi-guities of this law, Husayn cites a case where the police arrested some shoeshine boys by following the letter of the law and claiming that because they did not have a license they lacked the “lawful means of support” required by Article 1. At their trial, the judge sided with the defendants and overthrew the case, stating that shoe shining is a lawful means of employment even though the defendants did not have the proper license. Husayn makes a strong case for judicial reform and concludes that “poverty is not cured by punishing and criminalizing the poor.”

There were certainly traditional, as well as newer, publicly and privately funded institutions that helped with feeding and housing Egypt’s growing home-less population. But in times of economic strain, which included most of the 1930s, these institutions struggled to keep up. [42] Mosques, like al-Azhar, al-Hu-sayn, and others throughout Egypt, provided places of last resort for many of the urban poor, yet they were not enough and did not provide regularly funded meals and proper long-term shelter. Some private and public institutions could temporarily house street children, women, and the old and handicapped. Fur-thermore, the Egyptian elites publicly supported charities that supported street children. [43] However, according to Mine Ener, most of the extensive plans to “help” and train the poor and especially street children, “remained but blueprints in terms of their successful enforcement,” and “despite their intended goal of removing potentially criminal boys and girls from the streets of Cairo and Alexandria, juvenile ‘vagrants’ remained a public presence.” [44]

On the official level, charity was given to the poor in established institutions like hospitals, orphanages, and reformatories, but increasingly the poor were not tolerated in the streets. In the Egyptian press, anti-poor discourses intensi-fied at the turn of the twentieth century and continued well into the first half of the century, and this anti-poor sentiment was reflected in Egyptian laws and government actions. Anti-poor and anti-begging discourses not only cited fears of criminal activity and the physical danger presented by street people but also invoked fears of lack of cleanliness, disease, and contagion. In a presentation to the Egyptian Royal Society, Kamel Greiss broadly accused beggars of being “lazy peasants pursuing a career of begging instead of more difficult work in the countryside.” These sentiments were apparently a reoccurring theme in other discussions and lectures at the Egyptian Royal Society. [45]


The “Undeserving” Street Beggars

One of the biggest dilemmas discussed in the Egyptian press was determining which people ought to be classified as the “deserving poor,” and which ought to be classified as criminals or lazy imposters who feigned poverty and destitution. Some broad criteria of deservedness were created by the Egyptian government as new, specialized orphanages and state hospitals were created to take care of abandoned children and the poor who were in need of medical care. However, these criteria were insufficient, as many people simply fell through the cracks, and there were not nearly enough beds and rooms to put a dent in the overall problem. The one consistency in these discourses was an increasing concern about the appearance of Egypt’s public spaces. [46] To the elites and many of Egypt’s upwardly mobile middle classes, the mere existence of the public poor was a blemish on the face of the new, modern, and “civilized” Egypt that they wanted to portray. It is no wonder that few of the many urban poor depicted in the press were deemed as deserving of charity. The cartoon shown in Figure 2.4, published in 1935 in the popular entertainment magazine al-Ithnayn and titled “Is He Blind or Is He Pretending to Be Blind?”, is a classic example of the typical representation of the so-called undeserving beggar. The cartoon’s caption, writ-ten in vernacular Egyptian Arabic, reads:

The Alms Giver: O damn, I dropped the five piasters on the ground!
The Beggar: It’s right next to my walking stick, but I can’t bend down to pick it up because I can’t see it! [47]

Cartoon depicting a blind beggar and an alms giver.

FIGURE 2.4. “Is He Blind or Is He Pretending to Be Blind?” Source: al-Ithnayn, May 20, 1935.


In another example, if we were to believe the editors of al-Ahram news-paper, a twenty-year-old man named Ahmad Tawfiq belonged squarely in the imposter and undeserving camp. The January 6, 1934, al-Ahram article, uncreatively titled “A Homeless Man Claims to Be a Sufi Saint,” sets its tone at the beginning by stating that “every day the police arrest a large number of vagrants from all over Egypt and especially Cairo in accordance with the vagrancy law.” [48] According to the reporter, Tawfiq—who was fingerprinted and placed under arrest by the police—was disheveled, wearing torn clothes made of a rough material, and “speaking incoherently as if he was drunk.” The reporter then sarcastically adds that Tawfiq “claims to be a Sufi Saint and best friends with al-Sayyid al-Badawi, the one with the well-known mosque and Sufi shrine named after him in Tanta.” By mockingly stressing that al-Badawi, who passed away in Tanta over 640 years ago, was “best friends” with Tawfiq, the journalist pur-posely biases the reader against Tawfiq and his pending case. It is important to note here that aside from the anti-begging discourse, the article also indirectly mocks Sufism, which was consistent with the disposition of the Egyptian media at the time. As I examine in more detail in later chapters, unofficial Islam, or Islam as practiced in the streets by everyday people, was generally frowned upon as regressive, and it was almost always portrayed as tainted with ignorance and folk naïveté.

So as to not leave any doubt as to the guilt and falseness of Tawfiq’s claims, the reporter maintains that “because of this vagrancy law, many beggars come up with inventive ways to avoid arrest,” and that one of those ways was pretending to be a Sufi saint (wali). Of course, by suggesting that this homeless man was a fake and pretending to be a saint, the article automatically biases the reader, and in the process gives the ultimate legitimacy to the state and whatever actions it intends to pursue against Tawfiq. What is truly tragic in this particular case, and surely in many others like it, was that it would seem that neither the police nor the reporter suspected that the young man might be mentally ill and likely a schizophrenic. The immediate assumption was that he was drunk, and pretending to be a Sufi saint either because it would justify his begging or because he was hiding from the authorities owing to some past crime.

In the case of Tawfiq, the trail ends here, as there is no way of knowing what eventually happened to him. However, this storyline and the way it was framed and represented in al-Ahram and in the cartoon in al-Ithnayn were characteristic of an entire genre of articles, photographs, cartoons, and other media that were unambiguously dismissive, if not outright hostile, toward beggars and street people in general. Panhandlers and drifters were almost always depicted as feigning poverty in order to make a profit. Very rarely were they humanized in the press as people who genuinely needed assistance. As far as most of the Egyptian press was concerned, the majority of beggars and street people belonged squarely in the “undeserving” and “imposter” camp. Such regular representations must have had an impact in justifying yet more repressive policies vis-à-vis the itinerant poor.

Reforming Street Children

Wherever you go you see a bunch of these kids spread out everywhere in shabby clothes fighting over bits of food and bread or a cigarette butt. They are often sitting on the ground as if they have no mothers or fathers. They fill the streets and alleyways with loud screams and swear out loud as they have no education or proper upbringing. . . . You find these fearless boys and girls aggressively and cunningly attempting to pilfer or scam passers-by, stealing what they can get their hands on. They are forced to do such things because of hunger and destitution and they are not to blame for this but it’s entirely the fault of their mothers and fathers for neglecting their upbringing.

Muhammad ‘Umar, Hadir al-Misriyyin ’Aw Sirr Ta’akhurihum (1902) [49]

In the midst of his long diatribe attacking the Egyptian poor in his 1902 book, Muhammad ‘Umar spends a few pages describing street children. As in the rest of his book, he associates public loudness, screaming, and swearing almost ex-clusively with the “lower” class. This direct connotation of loudness and public “noise” as characteristic of the Egyptian masses was a common stereotype almost universally invoked in most newspapers, books, and other forms of cultural production. ‘Umar, however, couldn’t bring himself to blame street children for their loudness, vagrancy, and destitution. Instead, he entirely blames the parents of street children for failing to feed, clothe, educate, and properly raise them. Of course, he failed to realize or admit to himself and his readers that street chil-dren, if they were not orphaned or entirely abandoned by their parents, did not belong to families that had the economic means to provide them with such an idealized and fetishized vision of “proper” public comportment.

Fortunately, other commentators during the first few decades of the twentieth century were somewhat more realistic and had more compassion when com-menting on street children. Unlike declaring common beggars to be imposters, it was much harder to vilify orphans and other street children and much easier for them to be classified as deserving poor. Because of their young age, they were also seen to have a chance of redemption through education or through vocational training. Even the dreaded and much maligned 1923 vagrancy law declared in Article 31 that the “law does not apply to women or children under 15 years of age.” Also, more charity associations and fundraising efforts existed to house and feed street children. As Mine Ener has shown, this was in part because the “rhetoric of saving children also served to affirm the paternalist role of the Egyptian upper classes: in the absence of ‘proper’ care from the children’s own parents, Egypt’s elite assumed tutelage of children.” [50] This did not mean that street children were not attacked or scapegoated in the press—as articles on thefts by street children abounded—but often the blame was assigned to their parents, if they had parents, or to the state that had failed them. For those children suspected of committing crimes, there were juvenile reformatories, and in 1908, legislation was implemented to forcibly confine some street children. [51]

When a group of five homeless young boys were caught stealing hubcaps from cars parked in public areas, it made for a sensationalist story in al-Ahram. The paper made sure to photograph the five boys together next to an automobile, and ran the article on the morning of January 14, 1934, under the exaggerated headline: “A Gang of Young Boys Specializes in Stealing Car Accessories” (see Figure 2.5). [52] The five boys were arrested for the theft of hubcaps from cars parked in front of movie theaters and on other public roads. All of the boys were from the Sayyida Zaynab district, and according to the newspaper report, they were all either orphans or abandoned by their families. To the chagrin and surprise of the reporter, one of the boys, the apparent ringleader, had graduated from primary school. It was in part because of their economic desperation and bad social situation that they had gotten together and formed their own street family. Tracking the boy’s routine revealed that most of Cairo was their playground, as they walked and most likely tram-surfed a large number of its streets every day.

A newspaper photograph shows a group of young boys.

FIGURE 2.5. A Gang of Young Boys.
Source: Al-Ahram, January 14, 1934.


The article detailed how they usually slept on the sidewalks of some of the smaller side streets near the Sayyida Zaynab Mosque. For an early breakfast, they typically walked westward for a mile or so to Qasr al-‘Ayni Hospital, where they collected some of the leftover food given away or thrown out from the day before. On a typical day, they then walked or tram-surfed northward toward the modern and wealthier parts of the city, looking for the desired car models. In the afternoon, they usually stopped at the Rud al-Farag vegetable market (three and a half miles north of the hospital), where apparently some of the more generous food merchants gave them some of the leftover food. It was on their return journey to Sayyida Zaynab in the evenings that they hit their prime spots for more expensive automobiles, those parked between Midan Sulayman Pasha (Tal‘at Harb today) and Bab al-luq. There, they could pick off the hubcaps of dozens of cars that were regularly parked in this busy movie theater and shopping district of Cairo. They then sold the hubcaps, for a fraction of their value, at a local gas station back in their home district of Sayyida Zaynab. The photograph suggests that the boys ranged from ten to fifteen years old, but the article indicated that they were being examined by a court doctor to determine their exact age. This assessment was most likely done to officially determine the duration of their forced incarceration in one of Cairo’s juvenile reformatories.

Most orphanages and juvenile reformatories provided educational or vo-cational training, which, in theory at least, was supposed to provide resident children with useful skills to help them acquire future employment. Aside from these programs, there were some experimental projects that the Egyptian government and private donors planned in order to “help” street children. Though to be sure, many of these were not implemented, or if they were, they were deeply flawed. In the spring of 1938, one of those dubious experimental programs was initiated by the Mayor of Cairo, with the encouragement and partial financial support of King Faruq. A detailed editorial in al-Musawwar magazine reported on this program and interviewed the Mayor, its sponsor and primary advocate. The editorial and interview, which perfectly captured some of the elitist patronizing attitudes of the time, begins by declaring that “the esteemed ‘Abd al-Salam al-Shadhli Pasha canceled the summer vacation program for street children. Instead, he will save these vagrant children by gathering them from the streets of the capital and sending them to be raised in agricultural camps built especially for them.” [53] In the interview, al-Shadhli elaborates on how, as Mayor, he set up a special police unit in order to col-lect Cairo’s street children and provisionally placed them in collection centers and orphanages in the capital. When the farming camp was partially built, in the province of Daqahliyya, two hundred children were sent there. The other four hundred children were temporarily kept in orphanages in Cairo until the construction of the camp was complete.

In the interview, the Mayor declared, “we thought about the future of these homeless children and started planning and building this camp. By employing the able among these children and teaching them how to farm we can guarantee that they will not return to the city streets.” Although teaching children how to farm may appear to be a worthy cause, the way that these children were forcibly “collected” by the police and eventually placed in these far-off camps should have raised some serious questions about this entire enterprise. The article never addressed what sorts of crops were grown in these camps, or whether these crops were intended to be sold or not. These questions would have opened up a slew of further questions about what happened to any proceeds from the project. The reporter, however, did ask the Mayor about the other summer resort camps that were canceled and replaced by these agricultural camps. Without flinching, al-Shadhli smugly responded: “Would any of those so-called resorts be better than these agricultural camps? To start with, the agricultural camps are located in a completely healthy environment and they are very comfortable for the children and I am sure that this will make them very happy. With this initiative, we are also hitting two birds with one stone, for we are saving the kids from the streets and at the same time they will be enjoying their summers and their winters as well, in complete happiness.” The way that al-Shadhli adamantly defends this project reveals his awareness of how suspect the idea of putting children to work in agricultural camps was. Though it would seem that silencing and permanently moving vagrant children far away from the streets of the capital overrode any ethical concerns he might have had on the questionable methods employed in achieving that goal.

Removing vagrant children out of the urban streets was not just a Cai-rene policy. In the same issue of al-Musawwar, yet another article addressed homelessness and street children, under the title “Alexandria follows the lead of Cairo and its fight against homelessness and caring for street children.” [54] The short article described how, like the police in Cairo, Alexandria’s police had also redoubled their efforts to detain many street children and place them in orphanages. Framing the article are three before and after photographs de-picting some of the street children whom the Alexandria police detained. The first picture displayed the children as they were “found”: dirty and with torn clothes. The second and third pictures showed them in clean white clothes, though visibly and conspicuously guarded by several police officers. The ar-ticle concluded that “if the other provinces followed the example of Cairo and Alexandria and expanded their police efforts toward this goal, then we would cleanse the country from all vagrants by providing for them, and making life easier for all of these unfortunate souls.” On the surface, it would seem that both the al-Musawwar coverage and the public policy initiatives concerning street children and the itinerant poor were struggling to justify these policies as purely acts of institutional benevolence. Charity aside, “cleansing” the country of the itinerant poor (including children) by silencing and removing them from public view also served other imperatives, the most important of which were (ultimately futile) attempts to provide “order” and to create quieter, more sterile, and hence more “civilized” public streets.



The bourgeoisie and the capitalist system thus experience great difficulty in mastering what is at once their product and the tool of their mastery, namely space. They find themselves unable to reduce practice (the practico-sensory realm, the body, social-spatial practice) to their abstract space, and hence new, spatial, contradictions arise and make themselves felt.

Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space [55]

In many ways, Henri Lefebvre’s assessment of the difficulties the technocratic bourgeoisie had in understanding the embodied intricacies of public space speaks directly to the realities of the Egyptian streets. An embodied, more sen-sory-aware examination of space nuances and tempers any exaggerated bird’s-eye view of the panoptic power of the modern state. The plans, maps, laws, and controlling tools and techniques of modern authority may have looked impres-sive and all-encompassing on two-dimensional sheets of paper, but the actual enforcement, if it ever took place, was almost always contentious. The varying and creative ways in which ordinary Egyptian men and women clashed with or evaded the authorities, through reappropriating the streets for their own use, are the best demonstration of the flaws of exclusively relying on the abstract “theoretical (epistemological) realm” at the expense of the everyday “space of people who deal with material things.” [56] To be sure, this does not diminish the very real imbalance and abuse of power often enforced by the police and state authorities, but it reveals some of the cracks and weaknesses of these modern systems of control, especially when it comes to controlling the streets. Listen-ing in to the sources, and closely examining the streets at a more embodied microlevel, gets us closer to what Lefebvre labels the “practico-sensory realm.”

As this chapter demonstrates, the itinerant poor and especially street hawkers, individually and at times collectively, defied the state authorities and in many ways appropriated the streets for their own use. In part because of the transitory nature of the itinerant poor, their relationship with the Egyptian state was (and still is) often adversarial and rife with tension. As we have seen, there were official crackdowns, and—for lack of a better word—unofficial shakedowns of street merchants and the itinerant poor by some members of the police. Though it was impossible to consistently regulate, as a totality, tens of thousands of constantly moving hawkers, entertainers, and beggars who, by definition, did not have a known street address. Nonetheless, these cat-and-mouse games between the Egyptian authorities and the itinerant poor were not just about ownership and control of the public street, they were also critical in driving discourses of class formation and defining the shifting sensory sensibilities of upwardly mobile, middle-class Egyptians. Increasingly, as the twentieth century roared on, the Egyptian press was full of classist condemnation and sensory marginalization of the itinerant poor. Silencing the streets and street people and rendering them invisible were critical components of chasing after an elitist ideal (albeit an un-realistic one) of what modern and “civilized” society was supposed to look and sound like.


[1] Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984), 7.

[2] In the same vein as the vulgarizing attacks by the Egyptian cultural elites on most forms of vernacular popular culture that I discuss in Ordinary Egyptians, these attacks on Egyptian street people take on a distinctly sensory dimension.

[3] For an excellent and detailed analysis of the cultural and economic makeup of the effendiyya and the Egyptian middle classes, see Lucie Ryzova, The Age of the Efendiyya: Passages to Modernity in National Colonial Egypt (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014). For a well-researched study on masculinity and middle class formation in Egypt, see Wilson Chacko Jacob, Working out Egypt: Effendi Masculinity and Subject Formation in Colonial Modernity, 1870-1940 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).

[4] Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction. 6-7.

[5] Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction. 77.

[6] Muhammad ‘Umar, Hadir al-Misriyyin ’Aw Sirr Ta’akhkhurihum (Cairo: Matba‘at al-Muqtataf, 1902).

[7] Edmond Demolins, A quoi tient la supériorité des Anglo-Saxons (Paris: Firmin-Didot, 1898).

[8]  For more on the Dinshiway incident see Ziad Fahmy, Ordinary Egyptians: Creating the Modern Nation through Popular Culture (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011), 92-95.

[9] Ahmad Fathi Zaghlul, Sirr Taqaddum al-Injliz al-Saksuniyyin (Cairo: Matba'at al-Ma'arif, 1899).

[10] Zachary Lockman, “Imagining the Working Class: Culture, Nationalism, and Class Formation in Egypt, 1899-1914.” Poetics Today 15, no. 2 (Summer 1994): 163.

[11] For an excellent synopsis of Umar’s argument with regards to class see, Zachary Lockman, “Imagining the Working Class: Culture, Nationalism, and Class Formation in Egypt, 1899-1914.” Poetics Today 15, no. 2 (Summer 1994): 157-91.

[12] Zachary Lockman, “Imagining the Working Class: Culture, Nationalism, and Class Formation in Egypt, 1899-1914.” Poetics Today 15, no. 2 (Summer 1994): 168.

[13] For more on many of these discourses, and the tensions between the benevolent and classists impulses of Egypt’s elites see Mine Ener, Managing Egypt’s Poor and the Politics of Benevolence, 1800-1952 (Princeton: Princeton University press, 2003).

[14] For typical anti-populist attitudes and general fear of the masse mobilizing in the streets, see Mikhail Bey Sharubim, Al-Kafi fi Tarikh Misr al-Qadim wa al-Hadith, vol. 5, bk. 3 (Cairo: Matba‘it Dar al-Kutub wa al-Watha’iq al-Qawmiyya bil-Qahira, 2003), 492-500.

[15] Muhammad ‘Umar, Hadir al-Misriyyin ’Aw Sirr Ta’akhurihum (Cairo: Matba‘at al-Muqtataf, 1902), 227.

[16] Muhammad ‘Umar, Hadir al-Misriyyin ’Aw Sirr Ta’akhurihum (Cairo: Matba‘at al-Muqtataf, 1902), 229-230.  

[17] Unsuccessful attempts at regulating, documenting, and taxing them began in the mid-19th century and continue to this day. Indeed, as I personally encountered many times on my (2013-2014) research trips to Cairo and Alexandria, police abuse and harassments of street merchants and hawkers still very much continues today. The regular cat and mouse games between the police and street merchants near Azbakiyya square in Cairo today are a testament to the continuing tug of war between street merchant and the state.

[18] “Monsieur Eram’s proposed concession to the president of Majlis al-Nuzzar” (in
French), DWQ, Majlis al-Wizara’ Files, no. 0075-022228 (January 12, 1889).

[19] “Explanatory memo on the history of regulating street hawkers” (in Arabic),
DWQ, Majlis al-Wizara’ Files, no. 0075-055053 (July 1941).

[20] “Laws and regulations regarding street hawkers” (in Arabic), DWQ, Majlis al-
Wizara’ Files, no. 0075-055053 (July 1941).

[21] A millime is one-thousandth and a piaster is one-hundredth of an Egyptian
pound (LE).

[22] “Laws and regulations regarding street hawkers.”

[23] For an excellent examination of contemporary police relations with itinerant
merchants, see Salwa Ismail, Political Life in Cairo’s New Quarters: Encountering the Everyday
(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006).

[24] “Petition to King Faruq by Abd al-Maqsud Khalaf Hasan” (in Arabic), DWQ,
Watha’iq ‘Abdin Files, no. 0069-010545 (October 16, 1944).

[25] “Petition to King Faruq by Abd al-Maqsud Khalaf Hasan.”

[26] “Petition to King Faruq by Selim Nicola on behalf of a dozen street merchants”
(in Arabic), DWQ, Watha’iq ‘Abdin Files, no. 0069-012050 (March 27, 1947).

[27] Al- Musawwar, May 30, 1938.

[28] ‘Umar, Hadir al-Misriyyin ’Aw Sirr Ta’akhurihum, 230.

[29] ‘Umar, Hadir al-Misriyyin ’Aw Sirr Ta’akhurihum, 230.

[30] More research needs to be done as to why this happened.

[31] Ener, Managing Egypt’s Poor, 107.

[32] al-Ithnayn (December 10, 1934).

[33] Ener, Managing Egypt’s Poor, 105.

[34] Ministry of the Interior Report for the Year 1922, TNA, FO 141/586/4.

[35] Nazzaarat al-Dakhiliyya: Qawanin wa-lawa’ih al-Bulis al-Misri (Cairo: al-Matba‘a
al-Kubra al-Amiriyya, 1895), 381.

[36] Nazzaarat al-Dakhiliyya, 539.

[37] See Fahmy, Ordinary Egyptians, 105–108.

[38] Al-Ahram, January 11, 1933.

[39] “The law on vagrants and on those under surveillance and wanted by the police”
(in Arabic), DWQ, Majlis al-Wizara’ Files, no. 0075-004332 (June 29, 1923).

[40] “The law on vagrants and on those under surveillance and wanted by the police.”

[41] Al-Ahram, January 11, 1933.

[42] For example, see Robert Tignor, State, Private Enterprise, and Economic Change
in Egypt, 1918–1952
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 141–146.

[43] For much more on children in Egypt during the first half of the twentieth century,
see Heidi Morrison, Childhood and Colonial Modernity in Egypt (New York: Palgrave
Macmillan, 2015). For a broader examination of destitute children in the Ottoman Empire,
see Nazan Maksudyan, Orphans and Destitute Children in the Late Ottoman Empire
(Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2014).

[44] Ener, Managing Egypt’s Poor, 12, 18.

[45] Ener, Managing Egypt’s Poor, 107.

[46] Ener, Managing Egypt’s Poor, 26-30.

[47] Al-Ithnayn, May 20, 1935.

[48] Al-Ahram, January 6, 1934.

[49] ‘Umar, Hadir al-Misriyyin ’Aw Sirr Ta’akhurihum, 228–229.

[50] Ener, Managing Egypt’s Poor, 125.

[51] Ener, Managing Egypt’s Poor, 115.

[52] Al-Ahram, Jan 14, 1933.

[53] Al-Musawwar, May 30, 1938.

[54] Al-Musawwar, May 30, 1938.

[55] Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1991), 63.

[56] Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1991), 4.

Join the colloquy

Postcolonial Spatialities


On one reading, postcolonial studies seem to be riveted more firmly on temporal as opposed to spatial questions. This may be traced partly to the effect of the temporalizing "post-" in the term postcolonialism, which has allowed an insistence on various dates as inaugurating the epochal postcolonial relation. 


Thus, 1492 and 1955 are readily taken as two bookends to the postcolonial, the first signaling the debatable first discovery of the Americas and the second specifying the moment of the coming together of nations from Africa, Asia, and Latin America in a new comity of nations setting out a lively anti-colonial agenda.  At the same time these and other inaugural dates also signal moments of spatiality, in which spatial processes took place that altered the socio-cultural and political relation between so-called Third and First Worlds, global south and global north, and between various nodal points of the global south itself.

At the same time, the question of space and spatiality must also be noted as having taken an increasingly central place in general discussions of the colonial and postcolonial condition.  This other emphasis emerges most visibly in analyses that expressly detail or otherwise highlight  the automatic entailments of the colonial world with that of the colonized, such that it is impossible to understand metropolitan colonial culture without a concomitant understanding of the spatial relationships between that and the culture of the colonized.  In this respect we might even adduce inherently spatial axioms from Edward Said’s now-classic Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism.  Additionally, the increasing focus on transnational modes of analysis has meant that space has taken on a salience alongside other categories as a means of understanding an inter-dependent world.  Varied postcolonial scholars have increasingly paid attention to the transnational inter-relatedness of space (Appadurai, Modernity at Large; James Ferguson, Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World Order), and to the inherently multi-scalar nature of specific locations in the postcolonial world (Jini Watson on The New Asian City: Three-Dimensional Fictions of Space and Urban Forms; Rashmi Varma on The Postcolonial City and Its Subjects: London, Nairobi, Bombay; Sarah Nuttal and Achille Mbembe, Johannesburg: The Elusive Metropolis; and Ato Quayson, Oxford Street: City Life and the Itineraries of Transnationalism).

Finally, the interest in space and spatiality has been a prominent part of the interdisciplinary confluence of geography, urban studies, and colonial/postcolonialism, inspired by the critique of cartography, modernist planning, and globalization studies.  Whether in Mary Louise Pratt’s discussion of the inter-dependent genesis of planetary consciousness in Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, Kapil Raj’s specific critique of cartography in Relocating Modern Science or in Karen Lynnea Piper’s Cartographic Fictions: Maps, Race, and Identity, interdisciplinarity has provided the rationale for thinking of space as a primary category of analysis.

The several spatial emphases of postcolonialism will be brought together under the rubric of the Colloquy on Postcolonial Spatialities.  Scholars will be invited to offer reflections on the following (not exhaustive) list):

1) Overviews of current spatial theories inspired by Foucault, Benjamin, de Certeau, Mikhail Bakhtin, David Harvey, Bachelard and others for application to postcolonial topics from an integrated and interdisciplinary perspective.

2) Explorations of the ways in which we might read space into and out of postcolonial literary writing.  While literary spaces are a function of language and genre, it is still not clear that we have an idiom by which to convey our critical understanding of such spaces.  Is space a product for example of means of locomotion, features of historical or geographical setting, or of the contrast between  economically and ethically saturated spaces (Slumdog Millionaire vrs Monsoon Wedding, for example).

3) Reflections on the relation between locality and transnationalism in our contemporary world, and the ways in which the increasing mobility of populations and the platforms of social media are generating different imaginaries of space.

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